The Value of Good:

Investing in New Age Consumer Brands

In the past three decades, I’ve tested, launched, marketed, grown, mentored, and invested in consumer brands. From tweaking back-of-pack copy to listening in on consumer groups, from analysing consumption patterns to sharpening benefits, from going through pitch decks to serving on boards, I’ve always been fascinated with the uniqueness, reach, and impact of consumer brands.

In recent years, this fascination – some might even call it fandom – has lent me the privilege of meeting and engaging with a brave new breed of entrepreneurs building brands for consumers like themselves. PC Musthafa wanted to bring preservative-free, freshly made idli and dosa batter into your homes. Suhasini and Anindita Sampath believed that India was ready for all-natural protein bars. Sriharsha Majety and Nandan Reddy set out to introduce urban India to the joy of home-delivered food. Bala Sarda believed he could build an international tea brand out of India. Ameve Sharma and Shrey Badhani decided to bring authentic Ayurveda into everyday life, and onto your breakfast table. And Rishabh Chopra built an online platform to take Ayurvedic products and learning to the rest of the world.

The more I spoke to founders like these, the clearer I became about how I – and the likeminded partners who helm Fireside with me – could share the knowledge we’ve gained over the years in a meaningful, sustainable way. How we could “give back” in a way that empowers entrepreneurs, brand-builders, and most of all, consumers.

What can we do to help this new generation of founders succeed?

Fireside Ventures is our collective response to that question. We support visionary founders with capital, knowledge, and resources so they can build enduring brands that are a meaningful, vibrant part of their consumers’ lives.

Our processes and playbooks distil our experience and expertise into tangible, replicable frameworks. Our extensive network provides access to platforms and models that help brands go-to-market easily, and scale effortlessly. Our advisors have been founders and entrepreneurs themselves, and bring unique insight and mentorship.

No matter how quickly we scale, or how large we grow, there will always be a finite number of founders with whom we can partner. Our vision is larger than that. We will build an ecosystem that benefits not just our portfolio brands, but all founders seeking to thrive and grow in the consumer space. We call it Fireside Ignite, and as we build our portfolio brands, we hope that our knowledge and skills can help every brand grow stronger, whether by using our insights, or implementing our playbooks.

We strongly believe that there’s never been a better time to build consumer brands in India. Digitally native millennials, the all-pervasive presence of the internet, and higher spending abilities across geographies, have made it easier than ever before to launch an insightful, relevant product or service. Since Fireside’s inception, we have spoken at length about digital-first brands, rapid prototyping, community building, and a system of feedback and reviews. Today, three years, and two funds later, it seems like everyone is talking about these things.

We strongly believe that there’s never been a better time to build consumer brands in India.

Our brands are doing well. They’re also doing good.

It can be argued that every brand exists to do something good for a consumer. But this new wave of brands have do-good in their DNAs. A young brand like Vahdam Teas isn’t running TEAch Me as a CSR investment, it is doing so to because it is committed to seeing the children of tea workers in India gain better opportunities through education. It also publishes an annual Sustainability Report. SLAY is a young, hipster coffee brand whose lockdown promotions contributed to the Zomato Feeding India campaign, providing packed meals for India’s underserved communities. MamaEarth introduced a dozen new products during the pandemic, including hand sanitizers and face masks that were not for sale, but were distributed among people at the front line like security personnel, healthcare workers, delivery agents, and domestic help.

It’s a movement we have been seeing over the past several years, as millennials and Generation Z have been slowly moving away from mass-manufactured, preservative-packed, one-size-fits-all products, and choosing brands more like themselves – fast-moving, deeply relevant, always accessible, more authentic, and more responsible. An acceleration of this trend is probably among the few positive changes the coronavirus has brought with it.

22 brands. 2 funds. What next?

I’m not given to writing blog posts, so perhaps I have the pandemic to thank for this one. But over conversations, discussions, and of course, some introspection, we have greater clarity on the direction Fireside will take in the coming years. We are deeply inspired by what our brands are already doing. The lockdowns, restrictions, and overarching climate of anxiety have been another nudge in the direction we will pursue. While we are committed to seeing our brands do well, we are just as passionate about helping them do good.

Consumers see value in good. So do markets.

Much has been said about Responsible Investment (RI), but perhaps the most relevant point is that its principles can – and we believe, should – also be pursued by investors whose primary focus is financial performance. After all, we live in a world where Unilever has saved $1 Bn since 2008 by proactively reducing its usage of water, energy and materials. Nike has a Chief Sustainability Officer, and has been developing its highly successful Flyknit and Flyleather products with environmental sustainability in mind. PepsiCo was early to pivot to healthier offerings, by investing in R&D.

Companies like Intuit have already achieved a 40% diverse board. Accenture is committed to improving workplace gender ratios, with the goal of 50% female and 50% male employees by the end of 2025, including 25% female managing directors.

As Fireside closes its second fund, we have been looking at the value of good – for consumers, of course, but also for our brands, our partners, and our investors. As I’ve said earlier, our portfolio brands are already bringing a world of good to consumers, by being ‘clean label,’ or ethically sourced, or toxin-free. They are already contributing to the mission of People, Planet, and Profit. Over half of these companies have been solely founded or co-founded by women. Just like Fireside is committed to giving back, we will go even further to seek out, align ourselves with, and strengthen what is good in consumer brands.

It’s what we believe in. At the close of three years of Fireside Ventures, I can safely say we’ve only just begun.

Kanwaljit Singh
Managing Partner

The Value of Good, one year down the line.

As the year winds down, and before we sign off for a break, here’s a quick look back at the year that was. Licious became India’s first D2C unicorn. Mamaearth, which has been neck-and-neck with Licious in leading the D2C phenomenon in India, now serves customers from 11,000 pin codes, and is available offline in over 70 cities. boAt is now one of the world’s top five headphone brands. And Avendus projects the Indian D2C space to be a $100-billion market by 2025.

About this time last year, we articulated our vision of responsible investing, and “giving back” to the entrepreneur community, as The Value of Good. This year, we have been working to convert this vision into action.

We now have a Chief of Staff dedicated to leading the initiative, and partnering with our portfolio companies to help them achieve their goals. We have worked with PwC to develop a framework to help us track and measure progress in startups. We have organised sensitivity-training workshops, and defined and refined some of our own policies.

As a fund, and as individuals, we have all spent considerable time learning this year: The difficulties involved. The behavioural challenges. The immense scope for greenwashing.  And on the positive side, the excellent work already being done by partners and vendors in areas like packaging, recycling, diversity, and more.

Perhaps the most important thing we have learned is that we cannot do this alone – what is needed is collective action.

Today, six of our portfolio companies are completely plastic-neutral, and one, carbon-neutral, as well. Three of them are donating a percentage of their revenues to not-for-profits: one plants trees, another educates tea estate workers’ children, while the third supports free meals in government schools. And finally, one of our companies already publishes a Sustainability Report annually.

Fireside Ventures: The Value of Good 2021

It’s these individual steps that will lead us to a larger movement towards sustainability and more equitable, inclusive business. For example, our six plastic-neutral companies recycle between 1,000 and 5,000 kgs. each, every month – which takes out almost 2,000 tons of plastic waste from our landfills every year and turns them into reusable plastic granules. Now imagine this taking place across all twenty-eight companies of our fund. And then, other D2C brands in India. And then finally, the startup ecosystem as we know it.

In the spirit of giving back – early next year, we will be sharing a guideline that any new-age company can use to chart out their own ESG journey, complete with checklists, examples, and a directory of partners and vendors. The Value of Good isn’t for Fireside alone, it’s for everyone – entrepreneurs, investors, and the D2C ecosystem at large.

Four years of Fireside Ventures, and I’m pleased to report that The Value of Good isn’t just a plaque in our conference room, it’s how we do what we do.

Thank you, and best wishes for a safe and happy 2022.